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The 'Dream Defenders' would defend us all

The 'stand your ground' law affects more than African Americans - it affects everyone.

Last Modified: 20 Aug 2013 15:10
Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
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"Rather than strengthening the protection of law-abiding citizens - the narrative used to sell 'stand your ground' - the law has served to protect violent criminals," writes Paul Rosenberg [AFP]

Weeks have passed since George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin in mid-July, but a group of young activists known as the Dream Defenders only recently ended their occupation of the state capitol building in Tallahassee, where they called for a special session of the legislature to repeal Florida's so-called "stand your ground" (SYG) law, confront racial profiling, and end the school-to-prison pipeline.

They were right to do so for four main reasons:

  1. the "stand your ground" law is badly flawed, and the evidence is overwhelming;
  2. it was directly implicated in Zimmerman's acquittal, even though Zimmerman's lawyers did not explicitly invoke a "stand your ground" defence;
  3. the law highlights and intensifies the broader problems of racial profiling, and the criminalisation of minority youth;
  4. America badly needs a reborn civil rights movement, and the Dream Defenders are the perfect catalyst, like the Freedom Riders and the lunch counter sit-in protesters who played key roles at times when the Civil Rights Movement needed rejuvenation, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which played a key role organising young activists and putting them on the front lines of struggle.

After initially refusing to meet with them, Governor Rick Scott changed his mind, but still refused to take any action, claiming that the law had already been looked into - by a widely-criticised, politically stacked commission, as it turns out. More recently, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford announced that he will be ordering a review of the controversial laws this coming fall - but with no guarantee of any action. Indeed, Florida is one of seven key states strategically gerrymandered by Republicans to produce solid safe GOP legislative majorities out of closely-balanced electorates, both in Congress and state legislatures. The Florida State Senate is 28-12 Republican, the Florida House is 74-45 Republican, even though Florida's electorate is fairly evenly split. It's a formula designed to withstand popular pressure, while catering to the GOP base, since most seats can only be lost in a primary. But that's all the more reason why what the Dream Defenders are doing matters so much: politics-as-usual is badly broken, and only a vigorous, well-grounded challenge can start the process of mending it.

How SYG came to be

It didn't take a gerrymandered GOP majority to pass Florida's "stand your ground" law in 2006 (many Democrats joined readily as well). It only took the NRA pushing a baseless scare story. English common law had always allowed homeowners to protect their lives with deadly force against threatening intruders - a principle known as the "castle doctrine". But in public, the rules were quite different: there was a "duty to retreat" from lethal confrontation, if it could be safely done. 

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Florida's "stand your ground" law changed all that dramatically. Not only did it remove the duty to retreat, it shielded murderers from even the possibility of arrest if they played their cards right - as Zimmerman initially did. Rather than providing a stronger self-defence argument in a trial for murder or manslaughter, "stand your ground" said that a killer could not even be arrested if he simply claimed he acted out of fear for his life. 

Florida police and prosecutors - including the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys' Association and the police chiefs of Miami and St Petersburg, among many others -  were horrified at the prospect, and opposed the law strenuously, but they proved no match for the NRA. Exhibit "A" for the law's passage was a 77-year old resident, James Workman, whose home was rendered uninhabitable by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, and who shot and killed an intruder into his RV, spending the next three months in legal limbo, while the prosecutor investigated. It was outrageous that a law-abiding man defending his home against a dangerous criminal invader should be put through that, NRA allies in the legislature fumed. 

"You're entitled to protect your castle," the bill's sponsor, State Senator Durell Peaden said at the time. "Why should you have to hire a lawyer to say, 'This guy is innocent'?"

Faulty justifications

But as a more recent reinvestigation by Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Times showed, the prosecutor showed good judgment by taking his time. The "intruder", Rodney Cox, was a man with two young kids and no criminal record, who had come from South Carolina to do repair work in Ivan's aftermath. He had had a few beers earlier, and for some unknown reason became severely disoriented. Workman initially encountered Cox outside both his home and his RV, and Cox only rushed into the RV after the encounter began. In short, if Workman had simply stayed inside his RV, it's quite possible that Cox would have simply wandered off... and his three-year old daughter would still have a father. This is precisely the sort of messy, confused situation that calls for patient, cool-headed, professional investigation, and that's exactly what the prosecutor provided, following a three-month investigation. 

Was Workman worried as he awaited word? Yes, of course. How worried? Not worried enough to retain a lawyer - directly contrary to what Peaden said. So how much of a terrible wrong could it be? Wasn't it also a terrible wrong that Cox was dead? There was no evidence he had any criminal intent - although clearly Workman did not know that. Sometimes the world is black and white. Sometimes it's clouded with shades of gray. This was one of those times. But in the NRA's worldview, it's always black and white. Good men with guns, bad men with guns. Uncertainty, ambiguity, doubt cannot be tolerated. They cannot even be acknowledged to exist. 

And so Workman's story was rewritten in terms of black and white - with the prosecutor, as well as the intruder, cast with black hats. And so "stand your ground" was passed in Florida with almost no question or dissent, despite the solid opposition from local and statewide law enforcement. And with the NRA teamed up with ALEC, the secretive state-level conservative/business lobby; 23 other states followed suit as well. All justified by a single deeply ambiguous incident, falsely retold in stark black and white.

The results were entirely predictable. Not only would more innocents like Rodney Cox be killed. More shooters would be considerably less innocent than James Workman. A five-year review of the law in theTampa Bay Times in October 2010 found that justifiable homicide rates roughly tripled from their pre-"stand your ground" levels to 102, 93 and 105 in the years 2007-2009Another Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2012, involving more than 100 fatal stand your ground cases, showed:

  • Nearly 60 percent of those who claimed self-defence had been arrested at least once before the day they killed someone.
  • More than 30 of those defendants, about one in three, had been accused of violent crimes, including assault, battery or robbery. Dozens had drug offences on their records.
  • Killers have invoked stand your ground even after repeated run-ins with the law. Forty percent had three arrests or more. Dozens had at least four arrests.
  • More than a third of the defendants had previously been in trouble for threatening someone with a gun or illegally carrying a weapon.
  • In dozens of cases, both the defendant and the victim had criminal records, sometimes related to long-running feuds or criminal enterprises. Of the victims that could be identified in state records, 64 percent had at least one arrest. Several had 20 or more arrests.

In short, rather than strengthening the protection of law-abiding citizens - the narrative used to sell "stand your ground" - the law has served to protect violent criminals, effectively legalising their kill-or-be-killed code of conduct, and putting innocent bystanders in greater peril.

Republicans defend SYG

In April 2012, after the killing of Trayvon Martin put "stand your ground" on the nation's radar screen, calls first went out for a review of the law, but Governor Scott refused to act while the Zimmerman/Martin investigation was ongoing. So a Democratic State Senator, Chris Smith, put together an 18-member review panel of prosecutors, defence attorneys, police chiefs, and law professors. The panel found profound problems with the law.

"What we've discovered is, in a drug deal gone bad, people die, and this is the defence," Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told the panel. "Our conclusion is that this law ought to be repealed. We don't think it's a thing we can tweak."

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But the panel's aim was consensus, and only a bare majority supported complete repeal, so they recommended a number of tweaks - most notably, allowing police to investigate any shooting, and removing the provision of immunity when the alleged attacker was unarmed or was fleeing from the victim (in several cases, "stand your ground" killers have gone free after shooting people in the back).

It was only after Smith began gathering testimony that Governor Scott belatedly started up his own panel - headed up by Lt Governor Jennifer Carroll, who has since resigned under a cloud of scandal. The panel was politically skewed, with seats for two lawmakers who helped draft the law, two others who voted for it in 2005, and another lawmaker who was the chief sponsor of an NRA-backed law prohibiting doctors from asking patients about guns. Legislative critics asked to join the panel, but they were denied. Only Republicans were involved in choosing panel members. 

Smith asked to present his panel's findings to Carroll's panel, but she turned down his request in a letter saying it would be unfair to let him speak since no one else from the public is scheduled to address the group. But Smith and his panel's recommendations were not alone in being ignored. In a story about the panel's final report, the Bradenton Herald wrote :

"[S]everal studies show that so-called 'justifiable homicides' have increased significantly in the places that have enacted 'stand your ground' laws. Reports have also shown that the law has had disparate impacts on racial minorities, and many of the people who have successfully used it are felons.

Those studies were not incorporated into the task force's final recommendations, though the group urged the Legislature to fund a Florida-based study.

'They systematically decided not to review those studies,' said Ginny Simmons, executive director of the Second Chance on Shoot First campaign backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 'We presented them in September, we've mailed them to the task force, we printed them out and presented them again today.'"

So, that's the panel whose approval of "stand your ground" Scott has repeatedly cited to explain why he's not willing to do a thing - even when challenged by the Dream Defenders. Smith's findings have been ignored. The Tampa Bay Times ' findings have been ignored. The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association has been ignored. The studies presented by Second Chance on Shoot First have been ignored. And not just ignored, really, but denied, the same exact way that Republicans deny climate change, as Governor Scott continues to pretend that a thorough review has found no problems at all with the law.

Although the governor's hand-picked panel as a whole recommended only minor changes, the panel's only prosecutor, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, proposed several significant changes. The law should not protect the initial aggressor, she argued, nor should it provide unquestioned immunity (a practice without precedent in Anglo-American law), but rather an affirmative defence at trial, should things go that far. 

Those are two major changes that the only prosecutor on Scott's rubber-stamp panel proposed. They were also endorsed by the panel co-chair, Reverend RB Holmes Jr, the pastor of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee. Holmes also called attention to the studies mentioned above, which the panel as a whole chose to ignore, further highlighting their willful ignorance. Finally, Holmes highlighted perhaps the most outrageous aspect of "stand your ground" - the license to kill unarmed, or even fleeing victims.

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"If a person could simply drive away from an unarmed attacker, then shooting the attacker is not necessary and should not be protected under Florida's self-defense laws," Holmes wrote in a letter included with the report. "Shooting a person in the back, as he is trying to escape, is, by definition, not self-defense."

The changes Holmes suggested would seem to be the very definition of "common sense". But the panel he co-chaired disagreed. "Nothing wrong here," they said, in effect. "Keep on shooting people in the back. It's all good."

That is Rick Scott's position to this day. And it's a vivid illustration of why the Dream Defenders' actions are so necessary - not just for black youths or minorities in general, but for all of us. A society that truly cares about civil rights cares about the rights of all its members. It is a better place - a safer place - for all to live. In standing up against "stand your ground", the Dream Defenders are defending us all.

Although the Dream Defenders had the right idea, they may have the wrong venue for ultimate success. The legislature passed the law, so it's the logical place to turn for redress. But if it's as badly broken as it appears, then the repeal of "stand your ground" might best be achieved at the ballot box via a statewide initiative. 

The odds of that might not look good at first - "stand your ground" is popular with the white electorate which, for the most part, has previously only heard NRA propaganda. If New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to continue fighting the NRA after leaving office - particularly the issue of their arming dangerous criminals - then he should be more than willing to help bankroll the air war for such an initiative fight. With all the victims and miscarriages of justice that Florida police and prosecutors have seen under "stand your ground", it should be possible to shock Florida's electorate back to its senses.

Law and order and civil rights are not usually thought of as being on the same side. But in opposing "stand your ground" laws, they most certainly are. And the NRA stands staunchly opposed to both. That is not an accident. That is by the NRA's own design. The people of Florida need to decide: Which side are they on?

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he's worked since 2002. He's also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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